The impulse to make a movie like The Passion of the Christ is very similar, I think, to the impulses that result in remakes of classic movies, adaptations of beloved fantasy novels, and live-action versions of favorite cartoons. It's the result of filmmakers asking themselves, "Do you know what we could do with this story given current technology, given what's possible with modern makeup and special effects?" That's not to say the filmmakers aren't personally interested in the material, but why retell a story that everyone knows unless there's a new way to tell it?
Another reason would be to attempt to say something new, which is what Martin Scorsese has done repeatedly with his movies. Scorsese is no stranger to depicting violence himself. His most acclaimed movies are explosive, but his quieter, more thoughtful movies often examine violence and, more to the point, examine aspects of the Christian faith.
The most obvious comparison is The Last Temptation of Christ which wonders what kind of temptations someone who was both man and God might endure. Scorsese's movie followed a Christ who fought human desires throughout his life, which offended many Christians who saw it (and even more who didn't bother), but it's on the cross, in the final hour, that the temptations move from simply human to deviously unique to the son of God. Where Gibson hones in on Christ's physical pain, which frankly is available to many people who walk the earth, The Last Temptation wonders if the pain would have been even more difficult to bear for someone who could end it all, at any point. The movie indulges a lengthy fantasy, planted by Satan in the form of a child, in which Jesus is convinced that he's done plenty of good in the world and can now live out a full human life of simple pleasures and no suffering. We humans can't claim to understand the thoughts of God, but this movie more than any other I can think of makes that clear by asking us to wonder about pressures we can hardly fathom. Of course in the end Jesus resists this temptation, the movie snaps back to the cross where he accomplishes his duty, by choice, and the film literally seems to fly out of the projector, leaving the audience with a blinding white light. It's surely one of the great unsung endings in the movies.
Then there's Bringing Out the Dead, written by the same screenwriter as Last Temptation, Paul Schrader. The story revolves around a late-night ambulance driver, but Scorsese and Schrader treat him like the young minister in Robert Bresson's classic Diary of a Country Priest, a man with a crisis of faith who wonders if he's doing any good at all. It's an unconventional movie that uses a modern analogy to present the struggles of those who are called to do the work of God. And look at Kundun, Scorsese's startlingly beautiful examination of someone else's religion and how its followers respond to violence and oppression. These movies aren't the gospel and don't claim to be, and some of them are rough around the edges where Gibson's movie is expertly polished, but they're the work of someone thinking hard about his faith, and watching them makes me think of things I hadn't considered before, which isn't easy to do with stories that are so familiar.
To the question of what kind of crucifixion could be made with current technology, the answer is: an impressive one. The Passion is intensely graphic. Despite reports to the contrary, the movie isn't realistic in a cinematic sense, with its blue foggy Garden of Gethsemane, its beautifully glowing temples, and its physical manifestations of evil. Thwacks to the skull don't really sound like booming, echoing thuds, but all the stylized movie magic does convey a sense of the real, physical pain that Christ endured, to a fault. It's an accomplished spectacle but one that leaves me with very little to think about afterward. Christians may complain that no one can add to the gospels, but no one is asking Mel Gibson, or any other movie star or artist, to do that but instead to think about his faith and respond to it. No one should mistake a movie for the word of God.
Although it's long, The Passion is well paced and moves quickly, mostly because it retells only the last days before the crucifixion, with occasional flashbacks to Jesus' life. As death looms, the flashbacks become more brief and are less gracefully integrated with the flow. Most of them will be meaningless to someone unfamiliar with the stories — here's Jesus writing in the sand while a woman avoids a stoning — so presumably this movie is for believers. And what is it telling them? Mostly that a crucifixion such as this is unbearably painful, something that most people already know.
Even though Gibson goes over the top here and there, with repeated slow-motion falls to the ground, crows pecking out eyeballs, and horror-movie shocks of creepy demon children, in balance I believe he has reverence for his material, albeit with a narrow field of view. Showing Mary running, in slow-motion, to help her little boy after he has fallen may expose the filmmaker's puppet strings wrapped around the hearts of the viewers — an astute precautionary tactic to use with an audience that may have been numbed by the bludgeoning — but I believe his intention is truly to identify with a mother worrying about her son and to transfer that understanding to the theater, even if it borders on crassness. Likewise, using the original languages for the dialog walks a line between realism and gimmickry. (A scene in which Jesus the carpenter apparently invents the dining table, à la Forrest Gump, is spoken in Aramaic instead of its original language, which I presume is English.) Gibson seems sincere, and the gore doesn't come across as exploitation but just strong medicine. The movie doesn't address whether this is the right medicine for the ailment.
I suppose that I'm looking for a revelatory experience, a moment of insight, every time I go to the movies. Finding one is rare. Recently maybe they've been buried in portions of Lost in Translation or in the Belgian movie The Son which sets up possibilities for revenge and forgiveness, opposite poles, and then hangs in the complicated gray area in the middle. Sometimes the revelations appear in the least likely places, sometimes even in movies about familiar events.
Gibson's movie ends with the resurrection. Some critics have said that this part of the movie is too brief after hours of persecution, but the strength of scenes should not be measured in minutes. The resurrection scene is short, but it's a majestic ending after a long black pause, an ending that feels like a beginning. The problem isn't that it's too brief but that I've already seen this image of the holes in Jesus' hands. It was in my head well before digital effects provided the means to put it on the screen, and The Passion of the Christ brings nothing to it, nothing to the crucifixion or the life of Christ, that I hadn't already thought about, except maybe that a cat-o'-nine-tails sticks in the flesh and rips it to shreds, an unfortunately meager observation from a movie that's obviously made with great conviction.